Emma Stone in <i>Easy A</i>

Easy A

Directed by Will Gluck, 2010

Easy A is a pleasant enough high-school movie, and it's certainly a sign of bigger things to come for the terrific Emma Stone, who tucks the whole film under her arm and runs with it. Stone plays the kind of teenaged girl who's as bright and hot as the noonday sun but is still a wallflower at her high school. In other words, she's a work of fiction – and one who starts getting noticed by her classmates only when she gains a reputation as a loose woman, displaying a red letter A on her chest.

Her reputation isn't unearned, exactly, but it's unfounded. When the virginal, private Olive (Stone) fabricates a tale of her own deflowering in order to get her best girlfriend to stop asking nosy questions, she's overheard by Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the leader of the school's Jesus club, who exults in spreading news of Olive's purported indiscretion through the student body. Frustrated, and maybe a little tantalized, by her new supposed status as a fallen angel, Olive agrees in a moment of pity to pretend to have sex with the gayest boy in school, a target of bullies nearing graduation who hopes to gain an eleventh-hour reputation as a heterosexual. Before long, she's agreed to burnish the sexual reputation of the fat kid, too, agreeing not to contest any yarns he spins about groped breasts, etc.

Singled out as the school slut, Olive turns that notoriety into a performance art piece, essaying a semi-private joke on prudery and promiscuity in the 21st century. Also, she wears lingerie to class, a highly appealing gesture that will always have a hypnotic effect on high-school boys. Stone's sassy, commanding screen presence leaves little doubt that Olive's in control of her own mythology, slyly aligning her interests as a sexually powerful virgin with those of the outsiders of high-school society. It's too bad, then, that the screenplay fails to connect with more than surface-level wisecracks and, inadvertently perhaps, encourages the kind of crass stereotyping it purports to deplore.

Easy A tries hard. It implies that it's putting an Internet-age spin on the old standards by explicitly referencing teen-movie landmarks like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Say Anything — and by "explicitly referencing," I mean it actually splices shots from those movies into the proceedings, a bid for reflexivity that screenwriter Bert V. Royal and director Will Gluck lack the chops to support. It's positively packed with dialogue, including Olive's recurring YouTube-video narration, that suggests Royal is at least a mid-level graduate of the Diablo Cody school of snark if not Westerburg High itself. But while the genuinely subversive Heathers was soaked in R-rated salt and vinegar, Easy A is slathered in oil. The whole affair is PG-13 toothless and TV slick — I kept feeling that the movie was insisting on its own embraceability, and I resisted. (Come to think of it, the title of the film, with its whiff of teacher-student relations, seems to promise something way more lascivious than what's actually delivered.) But it scored points with me through its satirical depiction of a highly intelligent young woman who's abruptly demonized and/or patronized by her peers for daring to evince a modicum of sexuality.

Then it took a turn for the worse. In a film that takes pains to show the adult world as fairly cool and with-it – Olive's parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson in maximally cloying mode) are a little nutty but wholly understanding and trusting, and even the squarish school principal played by Malcolm McDowell cites a just-reasonable justification for his hard-ass behavior — one character gets a raw deal.

SPOILER TERRITORY:
I'm thinking of Lisa Kudrow's guidance counselor, Mrs. Griffith, who is something worse than clueless and ineffectual. She's an out-and-out harridan, not only infecting a student with chlamydia but also expressing a willingness to let Olive take the fall for her own mammoth indiscretion. In a moment of weakness, teary-eyed, she objects to Olive's frustrated description of herself as a whore. “A real whore,” Griffith corrects her in a moment of self-flagellation, “can't admit it to herself.” Jeez. Remember, kids – if you're choosing a woman to hate, be sure you choose a whore who richly deserves it!

There's a lot to enjoy here, and a strong female point of view is always welcome in what boils down to a sex comedy (albeit one that assumes that, improbably, none of the kids at this high school are actually getting any action). But Easy A swaddles itself in the same comfortable stereotypes that it would like to have us believe it's attacking. Olive may be a strong, self-determined female character, but her arc ends in the same place as most Hollywood women's – in the arms of a strong, self-possessed male who can help bring definition to her life. Its attention to outsiders seems sweet and well-intentioned, but those characters disappear from the narrative, brought back only for codas that riff boorishly on their defining qualities. (The gay guy has a studly black boyfriend; the fat guy seems always to be within reach of an ice cream cone.) It can't make up its mind about the abstinence-oriented Marianne, which it alternately mocks and humanizes. And it trots out a noxious middle-aged caricature to argue that the real problem isn't shaming and shunning a woman over her sexuality, but simply shaming and shunning the wrong woman over her sexuality.

Finally, it has the nerve to wrap around its shoulders the cloak of the sainted John Hughes, as if to wink at the camera and stage-whisper, “Just pickin' up where the Champ left off.” Such temerity. This movie should wear its own scarlet letter.

Posted by Bryant Frazer on September 16, 2010 5:30 PM

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